Sign[age] of the Times: Econ. Dev. Comm. Continues Outreach as Local Business Climate Remains Challenging

“The Commission also hears from First Selectwoman about repercussion for Wilton businesses if State Legislators eliminate Car Tax”

With a number of topics on the agenda, Wilton’s Economic Development Commission (EDC) met last evening, Wednesday, April 21, 2021.

Marty Avallone led the meeting, with fellow commissioners John DiCenzo, Peter Squitieri and Prasad Iyer in attendance, along with BOS representative Lori Bufano.

Outreach Efforts Continue

Particularly since the COVID-19 pandemic has negatively impacted local businesses, the EDC has been focusing on greater outreach to the Wilton business community and seeking their feedback on how the EDC and local businesses can work together.

Toward that end, Kevin Kane, a senior manager in the Cycling Sports Group at Dorel Sports (which acquired the Cannondale brand several years ago and employs about 160 people based in Wilton), was invited to the meeting to offer his insights.

Kane said Wilton is “the best spot we could be in” (located in the iPark) and praised the access to transit for employees as well as the Norwalk River Valley Trail.

He acknowledged that a key challenge for the business was recruiting people to move here given the relatively high cost of living, but emphasized it was largely a county issue, not limited to Wilton.

While the EDC would like to develop better relationships with the town’s larger employers (like ASML, Breitling and other sizable companies), breaking through the corporate facade is proving difficult. Kane said he could relate to that difficulty, based on his own experience trying to get some of those companies to support an NRVT fundraising effort which he was leading.

Still, the EDC would like to develop promotional programs aimed at the employees of those companies, to encourage them to patronize Wilton shops and restaurants, whether or not they live in Wilton.

First Selectwoman Lynne Vanderslice, who also attended the meeting, pointed out that being a “government” commission can be a deterrent as the EDC tries to engage these companies. She advised the commission to think carefully about having something meaningful to “offer” in terms of a benefit to their employees (e.g., discounts at local restaurants).

Vanderslice’s main reason for attending the meeting was to alert the EDC to potential state legislation (Senate bill 1105) that would repeal the property tax on cars. If passed, Vanderslice said, other local property taxes would have to be increased, since 5% of Wilton’s revenue is currently from the car tax. Vanderslice felt the EDC needed to be cognizant of the issue in its outreach to local businesses, who would feel the impact whether they are property owners or renters in town.

Business Spotlight Program To Involve WHS

Earlier this year, the EDC began discussing the idea of publishing business “spotlights” to be shared in the media or on social media with the objective of generating awareness and interest in local businesses.

The EDC is now in the process of working with the Wilton High School administration to develop a program in which students with interest in video production are enlisted to create the video content for those spotlights.

Commissioner John DiCenzo has been leading that effort, and reported that the administration was “very enthusiastic” about the concept and was essentially “waiting for the green light” from the EDC to proceed.

Addressing A Hot Topic: Co-working 

The EDC also discussed an upcoming webinar it is planning to host on the topic of co-working, which broadly refers to shared office arrangements and flexible workspaces.

Avallone has been speaking to representatives of local co-working spaces and expects the webinar to be of great interest to many Wilton commuters as well as those working from home.

While details are being finalized, the EDC is exploring dates for the webinar in mid-May.

Engaging remote workers who live in Wilton (as well as owners of home-based businesses) was a key recommendation recently made to the EDC by AdvanceCT, a non-profit organization that works in collaboration with the Department of Economic and Community Development to advance economic competitiveness in Connecticut.

A memo outlining AdvanceCT’s recommendations to the EDC said, “As some companies are anticipated to make their work-from-home policies more lenient, the EDC should look to engage these individuals to better understand their needs, both in the short-term and in the long-term… The EDC should connect with Wilton’s remote workers to determine what their needs are, what resources can address these needs, and how this might best benefit the local economy.”

A Tale of Two Letters

The EDC recently submitted two letters to the Planning & Zoning Commission.

One letter was in response to feedback from several local business owners on signage regulations.

The letter said, “The [EDC] recently held an information session with local Wilton business leaders to understand their challenges and needs in the face of issues their businesses have faced in Town as a result of COVID and other factors. We have heard an overwhelming number of complaints about the Wilton sign ordinance. We understand that you are examining the current zoning regulations related to signage and are writing to urge you to revise the current regulations to create more business-friendly and uniform sign regulations for Wilton business.”

The letter was discussed at the April 12 P&Z meeting.

P&Z Commission chair Rick Tomasetti was amenable to the EDC’s overall message and conceded that changes in signage regulations were “long overdue.” However, he strongly believes addressing signage regulations cannot be approached in isolation.

“At this point, it seems to me the signage should be all wrapped up in our master planning. I don’t know that we want to pick up signage right now when we’re just about to embark on the master plan and revamp all the regulations.”

He went on to say, “We know it needs to be done, and it should be done as part of that thorough [master planning] process when we revise our regulations and we look at all of our design standards.”

Other P&Z commissioners were more dismissive of the EDC’s attempt to push for P&Z regulation changes, calling the letter “vague” but at the same time seeming to suggest the EDC had overstepped.

Tomasetti repeated that his message back to the EDC was, “Yes, we hear you, loud and clear” on what he called “antiquated” signage regulations, with assurance that the topic would be addressed in the master planning process. In the meantime, Tomasetti made it clear the EDC was welcome to offer specific ideas for consideration.

The Wilton Farmer’s Market

A second letter sent to the P&Z Commission from the EDC pertained to the Wilton Farmer’s Market.

The EDC wished to “endorse a plan to move the Wilton Farmer’s Market to a location in the center of town to help fuel traffic to our local business community and drive shopping consideration.”

The letter referenced the fact that Schenck’s Island had been proposed as a possible location at an EDC business forum earlier in the year.

Vanderslice responded that it was the Board of Selectmen, not Planning & Zoning, that had taken on the effort to relocate the Farmer’s Market to Schenck’s Island.

She also updated the EDC on the fact that plans to update the parking lot and make other improvements (such as adding electrical capacity) at Schenck’s Island would make it unrealistic for the Farmers Market to be relocated there this year.